Sorry for the delay — it’s been an intense week.
What I was thinking about the Baptist excommunication controversy was this: Public debates about religious groups frequently ignore the most decisive features of such communities, and frequently assess them as though they were voluntary associations of any familiar civic kind. Hence, some portion (not all) of the brouhaha about the unfortunate congregation in North Carolina teems with the outrage we would appropriately feel if some ostensibly apolitical entity had purged its ranks of Jews. [I should add: “And of course, no one has attempted the genocidal exttermination of Democrats.”]
But that superficial outrage is surely groundless; if voting for John Kerry is incompatible with the discipline of a given congregation, that congregation must be free to say so. The pastor did not, after all, clap Kerry voters into leg irons or confiscate their property — he said they could not be part of that congregation. Since the Democratic platform included some claims (about abortion, sexuality, and so on) that a Christian group can intelligibly deem incompatible with the faith, I’d say that — at first blush — the pastor was on firmer ground than his critics. Churches don’t owe Caesar neutrality at the cost of muting the Gospel.
Ah, but things are more complicated than that. After all, there’s established case law to the effect that if a tax-exempt religious group uses its place in the community to effect particular electoral results, they lose their tax-exempt standing. Now, I don’t suppose that’s the worst thing that can happen to a church (not really up there with “take up your cross and follow me”), but it’s a nuisance and puts a crimp in the budget. (If they’re going to play Caesar’s political game, they must pay Caesar’s tax.) If East Waynesborough Baptist Church figured that the gospel was at stake, why I’d positively commend them for forgoing their tax advantage in order to remain true to the church’s moral teaching.
On the third hand, though, there’s an ironic catch. If I recall correctly from the Baptist students who have labored so hard to teach me the truth about church polity and the state, one of the founding principles of the baptist movement involved the believer’s freedom on conscience (vividly expressed in Thomas Helwys’s A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (8-meg downloadable PDF of scanned pages here; why hasn’t anyone transcribed and marked it up in HTML?). Having experienced the tyranny of imposed profession of belief, the baptist movement stood squarely for the uncoerced freedom of the individual conscience. To the extent that the pastor in question intended to sway his flock toward unanimous support of George W. Bush, he came awfully close to aligning himself with the early persecutors of baptists, over against the earliest baptists themselves.
All that being said, the pastor in question seems to have handled the situation badly; his most eloquent defenders offer a much more precisely-framed theological case than he seems to have done, and his assailants justly call him to task for expressing so unalloyed a partisan sentiment. The controversy illustrates yet again that church leaders need the skill of careful and measured communication more perhaps than any other — and they run into all kinds of trouble when they say important things in careless ways.